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How Hard is it to Get a Book Traditionally Published?


I've been wanting to write this bad boy for a while. Actually, I wanted to do it in video form. But since I lack a certain finesse for creating graphics for YouTube, I had to settle for the next best thing.

First of all:

Why is this blog post even necessary?

Often, when I tell people, "I got a book traditionally published," they give me a deadpan expression. Or they'll say something like, "Oh. Cool." Because in their mind, anyone can publish a book. Anyone can hit publish on Amazon and boom, instant author.

Although true, that doesn't guarantee book sales. And a traditional contract is something else entirely.

I want to scream, "No, you don't understand how hard I had to work to say that. How many years I invested."

And I know many other authors who face the same conundrum. Who have family members, best friends, and even fellow writers refuse to read or purchase their books because they don't understand how much a writer had to go through to get from point A to point Z.

So I'll break it down for everyone here.

Buckle up, everyone, we're about to embark on a wild ride.

A caveat

I should note that no matter whether someone chooses to do the traditional route or the self-publishing route that publishing doesn't get any easier. But because I have gone down the traditional route myself, I want to de-mystify the process for everyone.

This will probably be one of the longest blog posts I've ever written, because writers endure a long and hard process to get their books with traditional publishers.

I've frequently complained to fellow writers about the lack of blog posts and videos that highlight just how difficult the journey from draft to contract is. So I wanted to create a resource that people could share once they finally get that book deal.

So let's explore just how much work you have to do to get that deal.

Step one: the writing

Believe it or not, writing styles go in and out of vogue. The telling and head hopping you saw in books ten years ago will not fly in today's market. And Lord help you if you do not go deep enough in POV in third person limited.

In fact, most books, even famous ones, published ten years ago would not publish today.

I'll repeat myself: famous books published ten years ago would not get acquired today.

Publishers have upped the ante. They require:

  • More research

  • More complexity in characters

  • Stronger dialogue

  • Deeper POV

  • Avoiding all cliches that have plagued your genre for the past few decades

  • Sensitivity readers

  • And so much more

And that just tips the iceberg. We haven't even dived into platform yet (will touch on that later).

Let's say you've mastered your own writing voice, which takes about a million words, by the way. Let's say you've got a high-concept idea, there's a clearly defined market, and it fits the vogue trends of books published in the last five years ... you still may not have a guaranteed book contract.

Or you may have several edits to go.

When writing a book, you have to pay attention to so many things. You have to make sure:

  • That you're pacing it quickly enough to keep reader interest, but not too fast that they get whiplash

  • That you've given enough character backstory, but don't info-dump too much

  • That you set up your world so readers can be grounded, but don't spend too much time describing it that you bore them

  • That your dialogue is realistic but not bantering

  • That you've done enough research on even minor details so that someone who is an expert in that particular area won't wave red flags and claim you didn't read up enough on the subject matter

  • That you avoid cliches in your genre, but also make sure to stick closely enough to tropes to have a higher marketability

And once again, we've just tipped the iceberg. Writing can go wrong in so many ways. And agents and publishers will reject you on account of even minor (fixable) plot issues.

So let's say you've finally polished your draft enough through self-editing to get it to a point where you can't even look at it anymore. Are you ready to submit?

Nope. Let's go to the next step.

Step two: the editing

Writers like to skip this step. And most writers who take shortcuts don't get a traditional contract.

Truthfully, all authors have blind spots. We miss big plot holes. We don't realize we have a massive amount of cliches. We've riddled the manuscript with typos and copy editing errors.

So we have to do a number of things.

First, especially early on in our careers, we need a professional editor. We need someone to tell us exactly what an industry professional will say when they read our book.

And it takes an investment. Editors can charge thousands of dollars to edit manuscripts.

In addition to a professional editor, we need other readers. We either get beta readers or critique group members to tell us their honest opinion on a manuscript. We watch in horror as they rip it apart, make us completely redo sections, have us get rid of characters, and make the book so unrecognizable from its original form.

But after you've edited it dozens of times, you have a guaranteed contract, right?

LOL no. First, you gotta enter the querying trenches to get an agent. And trust me ... it takes years.

Step three: the agent

"Can't I skip this step?"

If you want a traditional contract? It's pretty much almost impossible to get a contract now without an agent. Even smaller presses who used to take on unagented submissions won't take a look at a manuscript from an author who doesn't haven an agent.

So to maximize your chances at getting a contract, you need an agent.

And this takes forever.

Even if you expedite the process. If you spend hundreds of dollars to pitch one at a writer's conference, and they just happen to like your pitch at a meeting (and trust me, they usually don't), and you submit them your proposal, you have absolutely no guarantee they'll take you on.

Agents get literally thousands of submissions each year. And most agents I know will maybe take on one or two clients each year.

Let's do a conservative estimate. I get about 5,000 submissions a year. If I only take on one client that year, that client had a 0.02% chance of ending up with me.

Let's make this abundantly clear:

You'd have a greater chance at getting drafted by the NBA than getting acquired by an agent.

Well, let's say you finally get an agent after years of pitching and trying. Easy street from here, right?

Mkay, let's just assume the answer to all my rhetorical questions is gonna be "Nah, man." And let's dive into the next part of the process.

Step four: the submissions process

The industry has hundreds of agents.

That means publishers get swamped too. Even if they only take on agented submissions. That means they get unbelievably picky when it comes to rejecting books.

At our agency we've had picture books rejected because they didn't like the rhyme scheme (even though they had a prose manuscript available). We've had every excuse in the book sent our way, including a rejection I received that said, "It's perfect. We literally can't find anything wrong for it. We just don't have room for it."

I've gotten many clients contracts, but let me break down for you how many submissions their books went through before someone picked it up:

  • One of my picture book clients (42 submissions)

  • One of my middle grade clients (45 submissions)

  • One of my young adult clients (59 submissions)

  • One of my new adult clients (50 submissions)

Even if a publisher likes your book, you may have to go through several rounds of pub board to get their approval. A pub board will try to find reasons to say not to a book ranging from a lack of platform to a saturation of books like yours in the market. One of my books had to go through three separate pub boards and get the approval of two publishers to get a contract.

Even if a pub board approves of you, they may send back more edits. I once had a publisher offer a contract. Revoke the contract and send back edits. I did the edits in full, and then the publisher rejected the book.

This process takes years. It takes your agent getting onto calls, meeting editors at expos at their booths, asking for rare feedback, asking for a chance to resubmit, and honestly, sometimes a miracle for a book contract to come through.

And when it comes through, it could be a terrible contract. They may put lots of trick clauses in it, and when your agent pushes back, they may say, "Well, take it or leave it."

But let's say you luck out and get a contract that doesn't ask you to sell your soul. As we've learned from Hope's rhetorical questions, it doesn't get any easier from here.

Step five: preparing the book for publication

Publishers do not like picky authors.

This means your book will go through several more edits. They will ask you to make changes to your manuscript that you may not like. They may give you a book cover that didn't capture what you envisioned at all for the story.

And in most cases, you need to roll with the punches.

I've known authors to be far too high-maintenance and the publishers dropped the contract with them. Just because you have a book deal doesn't always guarantee that the books will hit the store shelves.

In addition to edits, your publisher will walk you through a marketing plan. Even though publishers have marketing teams, most of these efforts fall on the author. This means you need to:

Find endorsers: Authors who wrote similar books to yours who will say nice things about your book. Sounds easy, except authors are swamped and usually will turn down endorsement requests. Even if they say yes, they may find they don't like your book and will turn down saying anything nice about it.

Find reviewers: Sounds a lot easier on paper. Reviewers are swamped with book requests. And even if they do accept your request, you have no guarantee they will say anything nice. In fact, many will have a lot of critical notes for your book, so get ready for your Goodreads and Amazon star rating to plummet.

Find launch team members: You need people to share about your book, because your social media alone won't cut it. I have 30K followers across social media and I only have a fraction of that number in book sales. It doesn't matter how many "buy my book" posts you put up, very few people will buy the book. So you get a team together. But even when you do so, only a fraction of the team will participate in challenges and will share about you book, even if you offer prizes. People are swamped and sometimes things fall through. Life happens.

Do interviews: You will interview on blogs, podcasts, newspapers, magazines, radio stations, and in some cases, TV. Will this drive your sales up? Usually, no. But you get the word out as much as possible. And, like reviewers, these outlets are swamped with requests, so get ready for many of them to turn down an opportunity to interview you.

Do author talks: You visit schools, conferences, and do book signings in the hope you can get a handful of sales or new readers for your books. And many libraries, schools, churches, and other venues (swamped with similar requests) will not return your call.

Do giveaways: People love free stuff. So you offer signed copies of your books as well as other giveaway items in the hopes that your social media following will go up and that you have a greater audience who might be interested in reading your book.

Post consistently on social media: If you aren't constantly growing your social media platform, publishers will not want to work with you. You have to maintain a constant posting schedule, and share memes and other useful articles on top of posts about your own writing.

Once again, we've only just tipped the iceberg. We haven't gotten into newsletter opt-ins, book hashtags, cover reveals, book unboxings, pre-order versus launch day, and so many other things that go into book's launch.

My marketing plan for a book is usually somewhere between 15-25 pages, if that gives you an idea of how much goes into a single book.

So you launch!

Step six: time for book two?

Hold your horses there, eager beaver. Even if you have a book two for a series, or have another book you want to pitch, publishers take a look at sales.

If your book didn't have enough preorders. If enough people don't buy the book in the first few months, they shoot the sequel dead in the water.

It doesn't matter if you've left them on a cliffhanger. Doesn't matter if you've spent years planning the whole series. If you have poor sales, or not enough sales, they won't do a second book.

And let's say you have a book for a different series. Will that remain unaffected by another book's sales.

Nope.

In fact, many publishers will head to NPD Bookscan (usually a pretty unreliable source for exact book sales). If you don't have what they deem to be enough sales on one book, they may not take on a book in a different series by you.

Takeaway?

What was the point of this post, Hope?

Good question. I want to help people to understand the lengths authors do have to go to get a traditional contract. If you have an author friend who is traditionally published, support them in any way you can.

Buy their books, review their books on Amazon, share their posts, and cheer them on.

Because you may be the difference between them getting rejected and getting their next book contract.

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